Linda Anderson admits she’s a bit of a CSPAN nerd. That’s where she first developed her affection for Bernie Sanders, watching his lively speeches on the floor of the U.S. Senate. She also was a devoted fan of “Brunch with Bernie,” the weekly segment on Thom Hartmann’s radio program. So when the talk of a potential presidential run started, she quickly jumped to action.
“When I heard he might run, I got really excited,” Anderson recalled, who received an email from a national progressive group (she thinks it was MoveOn.org) that encouraged supporters to set up local meetings. She did, hosting her first back in April of 2015 in Lincoln, Nebraska, before Sanders’ official announcement.
A Facebook group was soon set up, Nebraskans For Bernie Sanders 2016, which now counts over 5,700 members. And volunteers like Anderson traveled the state to spread awareness about Sanders early on. They drove out to meet Democratic Party chairs and activists in the rural western part of the state, gathered groups of students at the University of Nebraska and University of Omaha, and held house parties around the state.
“We got this grassroots movement going even before the campaign got here,”Anderson said. “Nobody knew about Bernie for the longest time … We still have a lot of work to do.”
Nine months later, when Sanders staff from Iowa crossed the border after that caucus to start organizing for Nebraska’s, they were greeted by a turnkey network of volunteers already working the state.
“It’s really a delight for everyone coming over from Iowa and part of your job is already done when you’ve got here,” said Bill Romjue, Sanders’ Nebraska state director. “It’s building off of what they already have. Good organizers can come in and take advantage of that by knowing how to guide people for what they want and need to do. A lot of them had already trained for the caucus.”
The story is the same down in Kansas, which also holds a caucus on March 5th.
“We were bombarded with grassroots folks and volunteers when we entered this state,” noted Shelby Iseler, the state director for Sanders in Kansas. “It’s just a matter of capturing that energy and momentum and turning them out to the caucus.”
Many of the volunteers flooding into the Sanders offices in Kansas and Nebraska were familiar faces. Groups of supporters from both states regularly traveled into Iowa to knock doors in Des Moines and Council Bluffs. That helped many of them better prepare to work their own caucus state now.
“I felt like the majority of people were really receptive, and even if they didn’t agree, I learned a lot from it,” said Jan Bresnahan, a retired teacher in Lawrence, Kansas, who traveled to Des Moines to knock doors for Sanders in January. She’s since made calls into New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.
Nolan Bartek, who works in insurance in Omaha, started volunteering for the Iowa team after seeing Sanders speak in Council Bluffs in July. His only past political involvement was donating to Ron Paul in 2008, but thought Sanders came off as less of a fringe candidate, while still promoting the issues he believes in. His work in Council Bluffs informed his work now for the Nebraska Caucus.
“It’s not a lot of copy and paste, because they’re two different states and a lot of different strategies, but in terms of roles and responsibilities [in the campaign it’s similar],” Bartek said while volunteering at the Omaha office two weeks ago, noting he particularly enjoys the wide variety of people he gets to work with. “It spans the economic, race and religion. You’d be working with a farmer, you’d be working with a young hipster like me, you work with any and everyone.”
But it’s not just volunteer bodies the grassroots groups are providing. They’ve also built the type of real relationships in local communities that are so necessary in a caucus state.
Tom Tilden, a longtime activist in Omaha, is one of the key Sanders grassroots leaders in Nebraska. After some encouragement from the Progressive Democrats of America, Tilden hosted a very early house party last April.
“I thought there would be like 5, 10 people show up,” Tilden said. “Because it was all organized through Facebook. I figured that couldn’t be a very good way to reach out to people, because that’s not what I traditionally understood, you got to call people. But about 50 people showed up, there was no room in the house, people were standing out in the yard. We knew early on something was going on, this was going to be big.”
Paula Sayles of Shawnee, Kansas, recalled a similar experience from her organizing meeting at local library back on July 29th where 100 people came out to learn about Sanders.
“It was very surprising, the people who came,” said Sayles, now a leader in the Johnson County Sanders operation. “A lot were older. My party was not a bunch of young kids … A lot of people were concerned about single-payer healthcare.”
She collected names and contact information for everyone and continued holding house parties, organized supporters to walk in parades, and hosted some debate watch parties. Sayles also started one Sanders Facebook page for supporters to share memes and information, while she hosted another page solely to organize the most engaged volunteers in Johnson County.
“At first it was all just kind of fun stuff,” Sayles noted. “Then we started getting people together for phone banks … A lot of the actual bare bones organizing stuff was done by volunteers.”
While Sanders’ official campaign was focused on the first four states, these volunteer groups ensured he’d be competitive in the later ones. A handful of staffers for Hillary Clinton arrived in Kansas and Nebraska a few months before Sanders’, but the Sanders grassroots operation helped keep them at parity.
“Six months ago Bernie Sanders was the only game in town,” observed State Representative Jim Ward of Wichita, Kansas. “He had a very hardcore group of people. They were at events handing out brochures when President Clinton was here. They were out in front at at that event … Virtually anytime Democrats got together, there were Sanders people there handing stuff out.”
As the Sanders movement grew in a very organic nature, it took on a corresponding similar feel. Nothing was too structured, and many activists slowly joined their efforts together.
“There was never any real formal organization,” Tilden of Omaha said. “We just kind of figured out who was going to run it, who was going to help, and it just happened.”
“Some of them were three or four groups within one town,” said Kerry Gooch, the executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party.
And that led to many non-traditional types of events that continue to this day. While the official campaign staff on the ground is now directing their efforts to mostly canvassing and phone banking, they’re still encouraging the organic, unique events as well.
“People had a lot of freedom to do what they should do,” Romjue noted of the early efforts.
The Lincoln chapter of Sanders supporters hosted a Battle of the Bands for Bernie last weekend near campus. A march of over 400 on the Saturday before the Nebraska Caucus went through Lincoln. Several Sanders groups in Topeka joined together to put up a billboard in town reminding people to caucus. And the Nebraska group often brought their giant puppet of Sanders to events in Iowa to buoy enthusiasm at events.
In many ways it seems like the campaign is simply buffeting the grassroots groups’ efforts, as opposed to the other way around. And while some old campaign pros may raise an eyebrow at the effectiveness of some of these non-traditional efforts, it’s certainly undeniable that the overall volunteer-led movement has been a big advantage to the campaign.
“It’s been unreal,” Iseler said of the help it’s provided to her Kansas team. “As organizers, you feel nervous to enter a state with 15 days to organize. We walked in, there was an office already established in Wichita. There were teams of volunteers, there were people door knocking, people making phone calls. It was a very, very smooth transition.”
“At this point we’re facilitating the paid staff, and sending people to them so they have the information to go door-to-door,” added Anderson.
Will it all be enough to counter Clinton’s momentum coming out of South Carolina as the candidates head into the long delegate slog through the March states? It’s hard to tell as both sides possess strong organizations in Kansas and Nebraska. But with the nature of the caucus states, the organizing efforts of the Sanders grassroots efforts since last April give him a big opportunity to capture some much-needed wins in March.
Regardless of what happens, all of it has Democrats and progressives in these two deep-red states feeling encouraged about the future of their movement.
“This is a movement that’s not going to stop,” asserts Sayles. “Hillary’s not going win the nomination is, Bernie is. But even if he wins or if he doesn’t win, this is not over. I’m organizing people in my state within the Democratic Party right now. We’re going to make a comeback.”
by Pat Rynard